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Identifying Fake Antique Furniture
Don't let yourself be taken in by the interesting stories about the "little old lady who owned this originally." Sellers of antique furniture and used-car dealers are noted for this approach. These fables are heard so often that it leads one to believe that two generations ago the world was populated by sweet little old ladies who did nothing but buy old furniture from sweeter, older ladies. As with the beds slept in by George Washington, or the furniture brought over on the Mayflower, these stories, even when repeated in full belief of their authenticity, must be taken with a grain of salt. If you were to believe that all the furniture was as claimed, you also have to believe that the Mayflower was twice the size of the liner Queen Mary, and stowed to the gunnels; and that the father of our country was a traveling salesman.
Your own good sense will lead you to examine the furniture carefully before purchasing, thereby sparing yourself expensive mistakes. There will be times when, on the other hand, you will be able to discover a good antique hiding under a dull coat of paint or masquerading as "just that old chest down in the cellar."
Lumber was abundant in the olden days, and so you will find that large boards were commonly used. Table tops as well as chest tops and sides, especially those of pine, maple and cherry, were often made out of a single wide board which might measure from 18 to 30 inches wide with very few tiny knots, if any. This lumber was cut in odd sizes to utilize as much of the tree as was possible. In contrast, today's furniture is made of many small boards skillfully glued and stained. If you look closely at the new furniture you can see this by the difference in grain of the different individual boards. (From the top) veneer will give the appearance of one board, but underneath you will be able to detect a different wood grain.
Another fact to remember about authentic antiques is that along with being of odd, unstandardized sizes, the lumber was dressed by hand so that the planing was not smooth as is the case with modern tools. If you run your fingers very lightly across an old board you can feel the difference between hand-dressed lumber and the modern machine-processed kind; this is even more apparent on the undersides and the insides of old furniture.
Marks of tools from the old slow lathes and straight saw kerfs differ from modern equipment which leaves circular saw marks and perfectly smooth turnings from modern lathes capable of as many as 3,500 r.p.m.
Not all furniture was constructed with dovetails, but when found, they are larger and irregular and the "patina" (that soft color and the minute marks, dents, and scratches found on old furniture) will be upon the sawed ends and will be even in color all over the article. This is difficult to duplicate and one reason why antiques with extensive repairs are sanded is to disguise the newly added portions.
Wooden pegs were often used in place of nails. This was done because it provided better construction, not because of the scarcity of nails. These pegs were whittled by hand and are never perfectly round. They project slightly higher than the flat surfaces.
Hand-forged nails are to be found in furniture made before 1790, and usually have square heads. Hand-forged nails were made up until about 1870. Although crude machine nails appeared around 1790, they were produced in small quantities. Screws were made entirely by hand as early as 1588 and continued in usage until crude machine-made screws appeared about 1810-45; all of these were blunt on the end and had to be started with a gimlet. After 1850 sharp, pointed modern screws came into use. Handmade items were never as true, never as round and perfect as those the machine turned out. Some were well made, but close inspection will show the difference. The joiners and cabinetmakers never countersank nails and puttied the resulting indentations, as is the practice today, so if you see furniture with this characteristic, you can be sure it is either of late vintage or that it has been extensively repaired.
Mouldings are another determining factor of age in furniture. Early moulding was large and simple and a trifle uneven. Before 1840 they were usually held in place by brads or pegs rather than glue.
All wood shrinks in the course of time due to atmospheric changes. In antiques this is evident on round boards and turned parts, such as legs, because the wood shrinkage takes place across the grain in the width, but not in length, thus making the round parts a trifle ovoid in shape. This is not always readily apparent to the eye, but can be detected by the use of a pair of calipers.
The wear on chair legs and rungs will be uneven, and even the best furniture will have some visible marks from normal usage and wear on some portions, especially the bottom few inches where mops, brooms, and, later, vacuum cleaners have bumped during the years. These characteristics can be created with the use of a wood rasp and other tools by an unscrupulous person with the intent to defraud.
Signs of wear and tear will vary with the individual article. Some have many, others hardly any at all, according to how well they were cared for. Their venerable battle scats are honorable and should not be removed. Of course, a broken leg or missing handle must be repaired or replaced to be made serviceable but it should be kept in mind that any repair depreciates value.
There are many ingenious ways these venerable signs of age can be produced spuriously, and the amateur is advised to study further and to seek professional opinions before investing any sizeable amount of money in a single antique. For average purchases, however, these signs will be sufficient to protect you against most common frauds.